x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Press draws even with Dubai World after big break

At times last week, it was rather like a football match, with two teams composed of journalists on one side, Dubai World on the other.

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Who says business is boring? On one level, the recent events in Dubai, when the government and its advisers pulled off a business coup of global proportions with the proposals to restructure Dubai World, were weighty matters in the serious world of high finance. On the other hand, there were human factors at play that made the proceedings sometimes amusing, sometimes embarrassing, but always interesting and entertaining.

At times last week, it was rather like a football match, with two teams composed of journalists on one side, Dubai World on the other. Here is a match report. The game kicked off with the big set piece: the meeting between Dubai World and representatives of its creditors' co-ordinating committee, known as the "cocom", where the company was due to formally present its proposals to renegotiate billions of dollars of debt.

The journalists had been in training for this event for a long time. Each day that passed without news of the meeting only served to raise expectation levels. Finally, last Wednesday, it was going to happen. Some sharp-eared hacks heard the venue was the Al Murooj Rotana in downtown Dubai, and decided on a classic media stakeout: here we are, and we are staying for as long as it takes to get our story.

Journalists 1, Dubai World 0. For a while, all was civilised. Words of greeting were exchanged between the men in suits arriving for the meeting, held in the Al Yasat ballroom, and the journalists waiting with pens poised over notebooks. Aidan Birkett, who was leading the restructuring talks for Dubai World, didn't seem to mind as an enterprising photographer from The National ambushed him on arrival. The pictures - man in suit gets out of car - may not have been that exciting, but in a small way it was a world exclusive: the first time Mr Birkett had been pictured since his appointment last November. He even managed a few words of chatter before heading into the meeting, held behind closed doors.

By now, there was a small army of journalists laying siege to the hotel, and suddenly the mood changed. Perhaps it was the hacks' shameless pilfering of the buffet lunch that had been laid on for the bankers, perhaps it was the increasing shyness of the same bankers, who were worried even about taking a comfort break lest they have to run the gauntlet of media interrogation. Whatever, the news hounds were no longer welcome. Security was called, the media politely but firmly asked to leave the area of the ballroom, and for a short time it looked as though there might be a serious confrontation. In the end, the hacks conceded, agreeing to wait outside the hall, allowed back in only for escorted visits to the restrooms.

Journalists 1, Dubai World 1. When the meeting finally broke up after four hours, the imperative was clear: get Birkett. Nobody was expecting him to hand over the restructuring document, but the merest sign, even if it was just body language, might be all that was needed for an earth-shattering scoop. He fooled them all. He did not leave in the big white Mercedes V8 Kompressor SUV in which he arrived, but exited from another entrance and was away before the news hounds realised it. Aidan Birkett had left the building.

Journalists 1, Dubai World 2. The game resumed the following day. Early morning calls indicated that some weighty statements were being prepared, briefings arranged and announcements planned. The news was indeed significant. After weeks of speculation about "haircuts", "rollovers" and other such arcane banking concepts, few people had expected a huge cash injection from Dubai and a master plan to revive Nakheel and the Dubai economy. It really was a big story.

But almost straight away, the journalists were gifted a goal. As communications advisers do in these kinds of situations, a list of likely questions the media might pose was drawn up by the spin doctors, designed to cover all eventualities in the media briefing sessions that followed the official announcements. It is standard procedure. What was far from standard was for somebody from the Dubai Media Affairs Office to send the list, entitled "Top Questions", to all the news organisations on their e-mail lists. It was a spectacular own goal by the advisers: Journalists 2, Dubai World 2.

The game will run into extra time over the next few weeks, and there is still plenty to play for. The banks which are owed billions by Dubai World have to digest the information in the proposals and decide what is the best method to get their money back. No doubt they will use the media to air their grievances. There's still plenty of time for a winner. @Email:fkane@thenational.ae